Two bells from German battleships

The two bells on display at Scarborough Art Gallery.
The two bells on display at Scarborough Art Gallery.

The last time these two bells were together was under the icy waters of Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands.

Now, they can be seen side by side in Scarborough Art Gallery as part of the current exhibition, Remember Scarborough, which commemorates the Bombardment of 1914 and those who died.

The two German battlecruisers from which the bells came, the Von der Tann and the Derfflinger, were the ships that shelled the town on that fateful day, killing 18 and causing many injuries and much destruction to property.

As part of the Armistice agreement at the end of the First World War, Germany had to surrender most of its fleet to the allies. Seventy-four ships of the German High Seas Fleet, the Von der Tann and Derfflinger amongst them, sailed to Scapa Flow where they were interned.

On June 21, 1919, mistakenly believing that peace talks had failed and fearful that the fleet would be divided amongst the allied forces, Rear Admiral Ludwig von Reuter gave the command to scuttle the entire German fleet in the Flow.

A total of 52 ships sank to the seafloor: the greatest loss of shipping ever recorded in a single day. The Royal Navy tried desperately to prevent the sinkings, and managed to save some ships, but the German crews had spent months preparing for the order, welding bulkhead doors open, laying charges, and surreptitiously dropping vital keys and tools overboard.

Many of the German ships have since been salvaged – only seven of the 52 ships remain in the Flow.

The Von der Tann was salvaged for scrap in 1930, and its bell now usually hangs in the Deutscher Marinebund, or Naval Memorial, in Laboe, Germany. It has been kindly loaned to Scarborough Museums Trust for the duration of the exhibition by Dr Jann Witt, historian at the Memorial.

The Derfflinger was raised for scrap in 1939 and its secondary bell, which we have here, found its way to the Isle of Eriskay in the Outer Hebrides. In the early 70s, then parish priest Father Callum MacNeill decided his church needed a bell. He went to mainland Scotland to look for one and found the Derfflinger bell in a scrap-yard at Faslane. He took it back to Eriskay and he and six other men carried it in a handbarrow to the church. It now usually hangs outside the church, St Michael’s RC in the community of Am Baile, which has kindly loaned it to us.

Both bells will be returned to their usual homes when Remember Scarborough ends on Sunday January 4, so why not take the opportunity to see them while they’re still here? For further information, call Scarborough Art Gallery on 01723 374753.